Maybe my parents had kids past their prime. I don’t want to call them lazy, so I’ll chalk it up to old age. There’s 14 years’ difference between my youngest sister and me, and this kid gets away with murder.
Not too long ago, the 11-year-old was quoting the Emma Stone movie “Easy A” word for word. I’m sure at 11 I would not have even been allowed to see a film about a girl who uses perceived sexuality to define her reputation.
One time this kid got a terrible report card. The next day she went to Toys ‘R’ Us and had a sleepover.
In eighth grade, I couldn’t read Harry Potter books because, as Mom put it, “We’re Christian; we don’t believe in black magic.” But this sixth grader has posters of the boy wizard all over her room, as well as enough “Twilight” paraphernalia to open a store. There are many other examples of lax parenting compared to the stringent guidelines I had to abide by, but there is one ugly constant: My parents are overwhelmingly the most negative people I know.
You see, my parents are experts at pointing out what’s wrong with a situation. Praise is much harder to receive. When I proudly brought home a 3.9 grade point average, the response was, “Why’d you get a B in math? You don’t know how to do math? Is there some homework you forgot to turn in?” Meanwhile I’d hear tales of classmates getting money for each grade on a sliding pay scale!
When watching TV, out to dinner, or on a run to Target, the critiques have no end. The post-church debriefing session is especially painful. They don’t reflect on the message on the way home. Oh no. They talk about how Sister So-and-So can’t get any fatter, or the waxy wig on Sister Whoever’s head.
In my sister, I see a younger version of myself: a loner, withdrawn, and constantly conflicted about my body image. I have no idea how to shield her from it. When I went to college she was 4. When I returned home after working as a reporter in another state, she was a preteen. I’m not home enough to counteract the upbringing she’s receiving — one from which I’m still recovering.
I know how much I internalized it when my dad nicknamed me “Pork Chop” as a kid because he thought I was fat. I hated trying on clothes during shopping trips because every outfit was met with the same comments: “That’s too short. That’s too tight.” I remember going through my boy band phase. With grave concern, my mother (who does the talking for everyone) said, “Your father and I are worried that you don’t like black men. Why do you find your own people so unattractive?” Trust me, at 12, I had no idea my love for the Backstreet Boys was a reflection of self-hate.
If I’m present when my mother says something negative to my sister, I try to speak up. “Ma, don’t talk like that around her!” is as far as I can go, or I get a speech about how we should be glad she’s not like her abusive father. It’s clear she doesn’t realize her words can be just as powerful as his fists, and the sting lasts much longer. Sometimes I’ll go to my sister’s room and try to console her. “Don’t pay any attention when they say stuff like that,” I’ll say. “They just talk without thinking sometimes.” But how much good does that do when the next day there’ll be another comment about how she doesn’t think or a barrage of insults regarding the food on her plate?
Wednesday my sister had an awards ceremony at school that my parents didn’t attend. “You didn’t do anything special, so you won’t be getting anything today,” she said they told her. I was infuriated. Surely their lack of attendance was bad enough; did they really have to send her to school with a knock on her confidence?
Shows like “That’s so Raven,” “The Proud Family,” and “True Jackson, VP” that starred black characters are no longer on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. Katniss Everdeen is white and so is the new, kick-ass Snow White. Even if those closest to her beat her down, I can’t think of many external images my sister can seek to affirm her smarts, beauty, and worth. I can only do it in small doses.
When I think about it, she doesn’t have it so easy after all. And because I don’t want to overstep my boundaries as a daughter, I sometimes feel helpless trying to protect her. There’s only so much I can say to my mother, and at 50 years old, she likely doesn’t think she’s doing anything wrong. Have you ever tried to correct a child in front of her parent? Even when the kid is wrong, Mom takes up for her child and cusses you out. To critique a mother’s parenting would surely unleash greater wrath.
So what would you do? How would you address a parent – your parent – about raising his or her child?